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Sound advice from ‘The Tomato Lady’

SANTA FE, N.M. — Feed New Mexico’s hard, parched, clay-locked alkaline soil with natural nutrients.

Don’t plant before the evening temperatures hit a stable 40 degrees.

And don’t wander out into the garden once a week, ignoring it until it screams for help.

“They have to pay attention,” said master gardener Jannine Cabossel, also known as “The Tomato Lady.”

Cabossel offered tips for growing tomatoes and vegetables to a crowd of more than 200 at the ninth annual Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale at the Santa Fe Fairgrounds Saturday. Sponsored by the Santa Fe Master Gardener Association, the event signals spring planting to those possessed of green or black thumbs.

Both gardeners and wanna-bes came to buy plants and to attend lectures and workshops on everything from compost tea to building your own rain barrel.

Cabossel’s own massive garden encompasses 3,000 square feet for vegetables and 1,000 square feet for pumpkins.

Dozens people were buying tomato plants at the fairgrounds on Santa Fe’s Rodeo Road on Saturday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Dozens people were buying tomato plants at the fairgrounds on Santa Fe’s Rodeo Road on Saturday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Cabossel earned her nickname after selling heirloom tomatoes at the Santa Fe Farmers Market for five years. She’s also locally renowned for producing giant vegetables, including a 62-pound zucchini dubbed “Zuc II” and a 448-pound pumpkin called “Mad Max,” both of which set 2011 New Mexico state records. Her 14-foot sunflowers climb to the sky. Cabossel calls herself an “artisan farmer.”

In her talk, Cabossel pushed organic over chemical, praised the wonders of protective “wall of water” systems – plant shelters of plastic tubes filled with water – available at local nurseries and touted the benefits of straw mulch, but only after the soil has warmed.

Santa Fe’s soil pH ranges from 6.0 to 6.8, making it alkaline rather than acid, Cabossel said.

“Don’t ever put your ashes from your fireplace in your beds,” she warned.

And don’t even try to grow acidic-loving blueberries.

“You will be fighting a losing battle.”

Start tomatoes inside in early March or April or buy them from nurseries to transplant in mid-May. Improving New Mexico’s notoriously unwelcoming soil is mandatory, she said.

“We have the lousiest, crappiest soil anywhere,” Cabossel said.”It’s all about the soil, baby. If you make your soil fertile, half the battle’s done.”

Jannine Cabossel, ‘The Tomato Lady,’ speaks about growing tomatoes at Saturday’s Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jannine Cabossel, ‘The Tomato Lady,’ speaks about growing tomatoes at Saturday’s Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

She recommended mixing a generous helping of compost, such as Yum Yum Mix, worm castings, composted horse or chicken manure with a tablespoon of Epsom salts and a tablespoon of dry milk to add calcium.

She also advocated adding compost tea or Microbe Brew to boost soil organisms. The microbes develop a symbiotic relationship with the plants, helping them develop strong root systems.

“Out in the forest you see it because everything is broken down over the centuries,” she explained.

She cautioned against using either chemical herbicides or fertilizers.

“Herbicides like Roundup can drift as far as a football field,” she said, adding, “Chemical fertilizers kill the microbes; we’re trying to keep them alive.”

May 15 is typically Santa Fe’s date for planting to avoid spring freezes.

“This is the date you can plant outside, maybe … ,” she added. “You have to be a bit of a gambler. You have to became a weather watcher.”

Mix Thrive (a root stimulator) and seaweed with water and add to the plant before placing it outside, she added.

When the weather turns, pinch off the lower leaves and plant your tomatoes as deeply as possible. Stronger roots will emerge along the buried stem. Make a well around each plant so the water remains close to the roots. After the soil has warmed, add straw around the base of the plant. You can pick up a bale of hay at local feed shops, Cabossel said.

The straw will help keep water from evaporating and splashing soil onto the plant, a risk for soil-borne viruses, she added. If you decide to plant before May 15, use wall of water teepees to protect the plants from the cold nights.

Two weeks after transplanting, fertilize the young plants with fish emulsion and seaweed; repeat this again in July.

If the plant explodes with multiple stems as spring warms into summer, cut it to one or two. Too many will reduce fruit production. Likewise, pinch off any suckers growing between the main vine and side branches. Cut any branches that touch the ground to prevent the contraction of soil-borne diseases.

Water consistently throughout the season; uneven irrigation can produce cracks in the fruit, Cabossel said.

Cabossel grew up in Phoenix, where palm trees and Bermuda grass ruled. But when she visited her grandmother in the Sacramento Valley, her 7-year-old eyes opened to green and planted a seed.

“The delta soil of the American River is nice and rich and black,” she said. “My grandmother would say, ‘Who wants to go into the garden?’ and I would say, ‘I will.'”

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